Respawn: The Evolution of an Occupational Therapist

I often get asked about who I am and what brought me to this point.  “What’s your story and why did you become and Occupational Therapist?”

The Johnson men in my family have a rich history of serving our country in the United States Army. My Great Grandfather fought in World War I. My Grandfather fought in World War II and Korea. My father was drafted during Vietnam. All retired from the Military with honors. I enlisted in the Army in 1996. As a young private, I set two specific goals for myself that I would end up pursuing over the next 20 years. I wanted to be called Sergeant Johnson like my Father, and I wanted to be called Major Johnson like my Grandfather.

At my first duty station, in Germany, I was involved in a car accident where I sustained second and third degree burns to over 20% of my body including my face, hands, arms, and legs.  I was quickly MEDEVAC’d to the burn center at the Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio where I would receive the majority of my medical care. It was there that I decided to become an Occupational Therapist because of the influence from the one who treated me.

After several months of reconstruction and intense rehabilitation, I returned to active duty working at the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Before I applied to OT school, I wanted to achieve my first goal of being called Sergeant Johnson like my Father (he ended up retiring at 1SG Johnson, but SGT was good enough for me). I set a very strict regimen for me to achieve that which included me being selected at Soldier of the Year for my region. Less than a year and a half after my accident (and with only three years in the Army), I pinned on that coveted E-5 rank. My goal was then to transition over to a Cadet where I would study Occupational Therapy and return to active duty as an officer. I earned my Masters of Science in OT from the University of Central Arkansas and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 2005. As a Cadet while in college, I achieved top honors for my class every year I attended. During my senior year I was selected as the recipient of the General George C. Marshall award, representing the state of Arkansas at the Virginia Military Institute. The honor recognizes the nation’s top future officers in a venue where they discuss national security issues with top military and political leaders.

Licensed in early 2006, I spent his first two years as an OT at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, GA where I worked in behavioral health, ergonomics, inpatient rehab, and eventually specializing in Upper Extremity Orthopedics. While there, I was credentialed to be a Neuromusculoskeletal Upper Extremity Evaluator. Following my assignment to Georgia, I was selected by the chief of the Army Medical Specialist Corps to serve as a healthcare recruiter in Las Vegas where my mission was to be the subject matter expert on all things OT, PT, PA, and Dietitian for the 15 western United States. After only two years in the position, I was awarded the coveted Recruiter Ring which represents excellence in recruiting and has only been given to a very small number of Army officers. While assigned to US Army Recruiting Command, I used that time to market our profession and guest lecture at OT schools across the US on all things Army occupational therapy.

In 2010, I was tasked by the consultant to the Surgeon General to develop a pilot program where the primary mission would be to screen and treat mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) for the 173rd Brigade Combat Team. This would mark the first time in the history of war that a facility would be specifically dedicated to treating brain injury in a combat environment. From that program, 8 additional centers were stood up across Afghanistan with the specific mission of treating mTBI. For my work in Afghanistan, I received the Bronze Star Medal from the 173rd ABCT. Immediately upon my return from Afghanistan in January of 2011 I was tasked to develop another brain injury program that would evaluate executive dysfunction and functional performance in Service Members who were suffering from post-concussion syndrome and similar cognition related injuries at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, MD.

Transitioning to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, I served as the Chief of the Amputee section for Occupational Therapy from 2011 to 2013. In that role, I oversaw the evaluation and treatment of Service Members who sustained complex polytrauma that often resulted in multiple amputations with other comorbidities ranging from brain injury, burns, and behavioral health. It was during my time at Walter Reed when I finally achieved that second goal of pinning on Major and to be able to wear it just as my Grandfather did.

Before joining the Operation Supply Drop team, I spent my final tour in the Army in San Antonio, Texas as the Chief of Occupational therapy services for the Burn Center at the Institute of Surgical Research. It is the same burn center where I was introduced to Occupational Therapy as a young Private.  My time in service shaped who I am today and continues to have a huge impact on what my future holds.  Once a Soldier, always a Soldier.


Operation Supply Drop’s Chief Medical Officer, Erik S. Johnson, follows family footsteps into the Army leading to a successful Occupational Therapy career.


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